Critical Reflections on Stanley Hauerwas' Theology of Disability: Disabling Society, Enabling Theology, by John Swinton. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 2005.
Hauerwas is a well-known, somewhat controversial Protestant theologian who has written, among other things, about what people with mental retardation mean to society and, specifically, to the Christian church. This book is a compilation of reprints of 10 of his earlier publications (from 1975, 1977, 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1999) on this topic, and after every chapter or two, there is a comment or response by either a parent of a person with intellectual impairments, a service worker, or someone who is both, and in one instance by a person with a disability (but we are not told what kind). At the end of the book, Hauerwas writes a very brief reflection on the responses. This is the same format that the publisher has used with two other texts, its 2001 The Theological Voice of Wolf Wolfensberger and its 2003 The Pastoral Voice of Robert Perske, which were also published at the same time as whole issues of The Journal of Religion, Disability & Health.
Hauerwas argues that Christians, Christian families, and Christian congregations must all welcome people with mental retardation as members of the Body of Christ and that such people can and do bring many benefits to others—though he says these benefits are not the reason why they should be welcomed. He emphasizes the importance of close, personal relationships with handicapped people (what he terms friendships, though there are other ways of also being close); this will have benefits for anyone, as the author spells out (e.g., confronting people with their perhaps prejudicial attitudes, overcoming stereotypes, increasing interpersonal identification and commitment to work against injustice), but there are also specifically Christian reasons why Christians should cultivate such closeness that are different from why anyone else might do so, and should do so, even if the benefits were other than those expected, including in the next life rather than this one. Many respondents seem to equate the Christian congregations' incorporation of handicapped people with the contemporary secular ideas and practices of “inclusion” and nondiscrimination. Although there is some overlap between Christian rationales and practices, and secular ones, some rationales would also be radically different, and it would have been helpful had these differences been spelled out.
Unfortunately, some of the selections are repetitious (i.e., we find not only the same theme taken up repeatedly [that in itself would not necessarily be bad]), but the very same sentences and phrases are used in many of the reprints. This is due, in part, to the fact that the reprinted items were written at different times and were not edited for inclusion in this book. Also, the book is even more choppy than might be expected given its organization; for instance, chapters on the same topic of suffering could have been printed together and responded to together. Further, some of the responses would probably have been better had they been responses to multiple selections of Hauerwas' work, or even to the entire selection of 10 chapters, rather than to specific ones.
In the last paragraph of the book, Hauerwas says he would like the book to “attract readers who have never had to think about or deal with the disabled.” But fewer and fewer people in our society would seem to be such readers, because people with various kinds of impairments are now found in all walks of life. However, those people who fit Hauerwas' criteria may be disappointed because of the language they will encounter in the book, much of it being what I would characterize as “postmodernist” language, even in the abstracts of items that were written in the 1970s, before such language had become popular, and when it does not even appear in the chapter that is abstracted. Bérubé's article especially is full of such language (perhaps it is the language of contemporary literary criticism). For instance, readers may be discouraged from going much further after trying to figure out what antifoundationalism or post-Enlightenment narratives” are.
It is also unclear whether the book (or Hauerwas' portions) was planned for Christian readers or a wider audience. If for a wider audience, it would have had to be written very differently; and if for Christians, it should have been more uncompromisingly and unapologetically Christian, posing Christian questions and asking for Christian responses.
This lack of clarity is shown in some of the commentaries of the respondents, who seem more concerned with how out-of-date Hauerwas' terminology and ideas are, than with how Christian they are. Yet as a Christian theologian, he ought to be expected to first be Christian and to speak in Christian terms, or at least in theological ones, more than to be au courant or to please a nonChristian audience. After all, this book has the term theology in its title.
The issue of what is the correct terminology to refer to people who are mentally retarded came up repeatedly. Hauerwas says (in the last chapter) that we can refer to people by name–which, however, is an inadequate response to the challenge. After all, it is not always specific known individuals who are being referred to, but sometimes entire classes of people who are being discussed. For instance, one may (or may not) know the Liberian Charles Taylor, but how does one speak or write about a group of Liberians or all Liberians together?
One language problem that none of the respondents commented upon is that the title of the book refers to disability, but the selections from Hauerwas' work all had to do with mental impairment specifically—but what about other disabilities? Further, is disability always the real issue, or is it more broadly societally devalued characteristics?
The book did make me interested in learning how Hauerwas expanded on some of the things he wrote that he did not elaborate on. Some of what I thought were the most important and most striking things that Hauerwas said were hardly remarked on by the commentators. For instance, Hauerwas predicted that the way things are going in medicine these days, it may soon be necessary for Christians to virtually opt out of contemporary medicine and have their own medical personnel who will do many things very differently from other doctors— and with very different results for Christians. For instance, it may mean accepting a less high-tech practice of medicine and forgoing some of the high-tech procedures now normative in contemporary Western medicine, such as prenatal testing and organ transplants. These implications seem so important that they should have been spelled out by a commentator, especially as they might affect people with impairments. It should also have been spelled out that such a decision would have to be based on explicit moral criteria—in this case, those of the Christian faith—rather than on the common utilitarianism criteria that are used so normatively and matter-of-fact today.
Relatedly, despite the fact that there were numerous mentions in the Hauerwas writings of prenatal testing for inborn impairments, selective abortion, and infanticide of impaired children as well as other contemporary medical horrors that are expressions of the devaluation of impaired people, I was surprised that the respondents hardly commented on these; perhaps they did not want to tackle such divisive issues or to be themselves deemed to be out of step. Yet there can be no doubt that these practices are attacks on and against impaired people; those who claim to be on the side of impaired people but who do not oppose these are, at the very least, incoherent.
There are numerous errors that good copyediting should have caught, though more in some chapters than others. For instance, McNair tells us that his quotes from Hauerwas will be in italics, but they often are not and frequently are not even in quotation marks. Further, for some reason, the word be is often spelled he.
Of all the responses, O'Brien's and McNair's were the clearest and seemed to deal most directly with their preceding chapters.